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MormanityAn Embarrassment of Riches in the Book of Mormon Text
by Jeff Lindsay
Years ago when I first opened up my newly purchased blue-bound volume from Royal Skousen containing the details of the surviving original text of the Book of Mormon, I was immediately disappointed. Yikes, hick grammar! Not just archaic KJV language, but genuinely bad grammar, like "he found Muloki a preaching the word."
I was chagrinned and wondered why we couldn't get more up-to-date English in the divine text. Having the beautifully printed summation of Royal Skousen's work, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), hereafter The Earliest Text, lessens the impact of the awkward grammar, but the discomfort is still there.
As I read more about the process, I came to terms with the idea that God could give revelation to people in their own language, even their own dialect. I guess that was OK — except now there's growing evidence that many of these "errors" weren't necessarily the result of Joseph's New England dialect and aren't as much bad English as much as they are legitimate older English, namely, Early Modern English, often slightly predating the era of the King James Bible, in spite of heavy quotations therefrom.
Puzzling, strange, weird, and controversial — but with detailed data that shouldn't be ignored.
Although I saw some grammar that bothered me, I'm glad the first few pages I looked at did not contain what may be the most jarring grammatical oddity in the text: "in them days," with two painful occurrences in the Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon at Helaman 7:8 and 13:37, which Joseph mercifully exterminated in the 1837 edition.
It's not just quaint or archaic to my ears, but immediately evokes a visceral reaction in me because it sounds so uneducated. Please, I can handle someone a preaching as they are a going, but not if it happens "in them days."
Naturally, it came as a relief and a surprise to see that "them days" did occur occasionally in formal EModE, as Stanford Carmack demonstrates in "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 209-262.
As I wondered about those two occurrences, it seemed strange that they were so close together in the Book of Mormon, both in the Book of Helaman. I wondered if there might be other factors that their usage had in common. Interestingly, I discovered that both occur within quotations of public laments from prophets, quotations rich in parallelism, with apparent elements of Hebrew poetry such as paired bicola (couplets).
Here's the first occurrence in Helaman 7:
6. ... And he did exclaim in the agony of his soul:
7. Oh, that I could have had my days in the days
when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem,
that I could have joyed with him in the promised land.
Then were his people easy to be entreated,
firm to keep the commandments of God,
and slow to be led to do iniquity.
And they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord.
8. Yea, if my days could have been in them days,
then would my soul have had joy in the righteousness of my brethren.
9. But behold, I am consigned that these are my days
and that my soul shall be filled with sorrow
because of this the wickedness of my brethren.
Look at the nice grouping of parallel elements in bicola:
Nephi in Jerusalem / him [Nephi] in the promised land
B. easy to be entreated / firm to keep the commandments
C. slow to do iniquity / quick to hearken
D. them days, soul have had joy in righteousness of brethren / these days, soul shall filled with sorrow [from] wickedness of my brethren.
In addition to this series of four paired bicola, there may be a small chiastic structure as well in verses 7-9:
A. Past days: joy with my father Nephi
B. easy to be entreated
C. firm to keep the commandments
C'. slow to do iniquity.
B'. quick to hearken.
A'. Current days: sorrow with my wicked brethren.
Here's the passage from Helaman 13, taken from the Earliest Text prepared by Royal Skousen:
32 ... And then [in the days of your poverty] shall ye weep and howl in that day, saith the Lord of Hosts, and then shall ye lament, and say:
33. O that I had repented
and had not killed the prophets and stoned them and cast them out.
Yea, in that day ye shall say:
O that we had remembered the Lord our God
in the day that he gave us our riches,
and then they would not have become slippery,
that we should lose them.
For behold, our riches are gone from us.
34. Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone.
And behold, our swords are taken from us
in the day we have sought them for battle.
35. Yea, we have hid up our treasures,
and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.
36. O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us.
For behold the land is cursed;
and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.
37. Behold, we are surrounded by demons;
yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him
who hath sought to destroy our souls.
Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us?
And this shall be your language in them days.
Parallelism also abounds in this lament of the prophet, Samuel the Lamanite:
A. then shall ye weep and howl / then shall ye lament,
B. repented and not killed the prophets / stoned them and cast them out, had remembered the Lord
C. our riches, become slippery / our riches are gone from us.
D. tool … on the morrow it is gone / swords are taken in the day of battle.
E. hid up our treasures / they have slipped away from us
F. curse of the land, repented [turned toward God] / word of the Lord , the land is cursed;
G. all things slippery / we cannot hold them.
H. surrounded by demons / encircled by Satan's angels
I. destroy our souls / our iniquities are great.
And there may be a chiastic structure:
A. then shall ye weep and howl in that day,
B. O that I had repented
C. killed the prophets and stoned them and cast them out [destroy the prophets, great sins listed]
D. remembered the Lord our God
E. Riches have become slippery, that we should lose them [BIG SLIPPERY SECTION]
F. the curse of the land.
G/G': O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us.
F'. the land is cursed;
E'. all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.
D'. surrounded by demons of Satan
C'. destroy our souls / our iniquities are great.
B'. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us?
A'. And this shall be your language in them days.
Section E comprises several lines introducing the theme of slippery riches. Above it is collapsed to its key phrasing, but it may actually be a chiasmus within a chiasmus:
A. our riches have become slippery
B. our riches are gone
C. a tool here and on the morrow it is gone.
C'. our swords are taken from us in the day of battle.
B'. hid up our treasures
A'. they have slipped away from us
Reference to "days" (including "the morrow") occur in the middle of the slippery chiasmus, and in the middle and outer ends of the large chiasmus. Days is a unifying feature, and the jarring "in them days" at the end almost seems to invite us to look at these often-overlooked words in new ways to understand the structure and poetry that is there.
Poetry marked with an ironic instance of hick grammar (albeit acceptable EModE) — strange, I know. Yes, perhaps it's another example of the many ironies found in the Book of Mormon, where weak and foolish things start getting a little stronger and smarter over time.
Or is it just an overactive imagination on my part? Intended Hebraic poetry? Actual EModE? All just the result of Joseph's natural lack of education in the frontier spewing out bad grammar? I think there's more than lucky accidents going on in the sophisticated text that Joseph Smith dictated rapidly to his scribes back in them days.
Related resources at Mormanity:
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